Monday Morning Stepback: Book Banners versus Pedo Lovers

The Weekly Links, Opinion and Personal Updates Post

Links of Interest:

Interested in joining an online book club focused on the Women of Science Fiction for 2011? Sign up here. (via @fantasycafe)

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If SFF doesn’t light yer saber, how about a Year of Feminist Classics? I’ve read 11 of the 12 books on the list. One feminist fiction classic I have always wanted to read is Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, but it’s not on the list.

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Amy of My Friend Amy is seeking book recs for her 2011 readalongs, coming up in April and October.

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At the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal responds to Zadie Smith’s critique of Facebook culture (Generation Why? from the NYTRB). Both are long discussions, but here are two quotations which give you the flavor:

Smith: When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

Madrigal: Smith wants to say, “You are who you appear to be on Facebook.” But who believes that of themselves or anyone else? She makes the drastic overstatement only to serve as her grounds for outright rejection of the service. Facebook, the way I see it, is an API to your person. APIs are what programs use to pull information from Google Maps or something like that. When she faults Facebook for not caring about the “quality” of the connections that it generates, I have to ask: Isn’t there a box that allows you to enter text? Should Facebook be responsible for making humans better friends, better lovers, more magnanimous, more prone to checking in on grandma?

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There is No Such Thing as a Lesbian Book at Ask Nicola (via @colleenlindsay) (You know how I link to posts I don’t agree with? There’s a lot I don’t agree with in this one.)

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What week would be complete without at least one meditation on meanness in reviewing? Barbara Vey wrote a post at PW’s Beyond Her Book, complaining about personal attack comments left about an author featured in one of her video interviews, and Lori Foster and others took it as an opportunity to turn the discussion into one about mean reviewers (via @katiebabs).

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Author Shiloh Walker weighs in on geographical restrictions and ebooks.

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The Big Lie About Abortion and Mental Health
by Brenda Major, talking about a recent study that we can add to the sky high pile of all the other studies.

Rigorous U.S. scientific studies have not substantiated the claim that abortion, compared with its alternatives, causes an increased incidence of mental health problems. The same conclusion was reached in 2008 by an American Psychological Association task force, which I chaired, as well as by an independent team of scholars at Johns Hopkins University. As recently as September, Oregon State University researchers announced the results of a national study showing that teenagers who have an abortion are no more likely to become depressed or to have low self-esteem one year or five years later, compared with their peers who deliver.

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In preparation for the release of the 7th film installment of the Harry Potter series, a lot of websites have been doing retrospectives on Rowling. Nathan Bransford has a fun post with five writing tips from Harry Potter. I really enjoyed it.

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The steampunk backlash has begun:

I am becoming annoyed by the current glut of Steampunk that is being foisted on the SF-reading public via the likes of Tor.com and io9.

It’s not that I actively dislike steampunk … I don’t have that much to say against the aesthetic and costumery other than, gosh, that must be rather hot and hard to perambulate in. (I will confess to being a big fan of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius.) It’s just that there’s too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it’s in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)

by Charles Stross. As you might guess, 350 comments and counting.

Opinion: Pedo-Gate

As you likely know, someone found an ebook for sale at Amazon.com, The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover’s Code of Conduct, by Phillip R. Greaves II, that appears to be a guide to practicing pedophilia.

For those who are wondering if everyone is jumping to wrong conclusions about the book’s content, check out these posts at TechCrunch MSNBC and Gawker, news outlets who are reporting with first hand experience of Greaves’ books, having purchased them prior to their removal. Here is what MSNBC had to say:

Msnbc.com purchased the “Pedophile’s Guide” for purpose of review before it was removed from the site. Greaves’ self-published work contains six academically titled chapters in which the author attempts to add cultural context and express sympathy’s for his intended audience’s cultural plight.

Also included in the e-book are tips for “safe sex” with a child, as well as an emphasis on self-gratification using legal material such as teen magazines. To that end, the two sexually graphic stories “presented as an adult’s recollection of his youthful experience” could be interpreted as thinly veiled examples of pedophilic-themed erotica.

Outrage erupted on the net. At first, Amazon released a statement that it wouldn’t censor any of its books:

Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions.

Within 24 hours, however — exactly the amount of time it took the story to hit major news networks –  the book was gone. Amazon did not release a second statement, but it appears the book violated Amazon’s own content guidelines:

If Amazon Digital Services, Inc. determines that the content of a Title is prohibited, we may summarily remove or alter it without returning any fees. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. reserves the right to make judgments about whether or not content is appropriate. Please take a moment to familiarize yourself with some examples of prohibited content:

Pornography
Pornography and hard-core material that depicts graphic sexual acts.

Offensive Material
What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. reserves the right to determine the appropriateness of Titles sold on our site.

Illegal Items
Titles sold through the Digital Text Platform Program must adhere to all applicable laws. Some Titles that may not be sold include any Titles which may lead to the production of an illegal item or illegal activity.

The discussion quickly degenerated, with First Amendment defenders accusing those who called for Amazon to remove the book “book banners”. Their tone was often patronizing, as if the folks who wanted to remove the Pedophile’s Guide were confuzzled ignoramuses who just couldn’t get their tiny brains to grasp the importance of Free Speech. On the other hand, those who objected to the book tended to get righteous, confusing a free speech defense of Amazon’s right to sell the Pedo Guide with a defense of pedophilia itself.

What always helps me when I am thinking about a dispute like this is to focus on specific moral actors. Who can take action, and what action can s/he take? So let’s start with those who object to Amazon’s selling this book. Are they “book banners” because they are asking Amazon to remove a book? We all know the First Amendment doesn’t actually say anything about private corporations — it refers to what Congress may not do. And even if the issue was passing a law, well, many great legal minds have judged that our right to free speech can be abridged when there are other key values at stake. Clear and present danger, obscenity, etc. But since we are talking about what a private retailer may sell, it doesn’t seem to me that the author’s First Amendment rights, or the consumers’ First Amendment rights, will be violated if Amazon removes the book. Especially in the age of the internet, the author has any number of options for disseminating his book. He may have a right to publish it, but he doesn’t have the right that a third party help him do so. So, I don’t think we can claim that people who are asking that Amazon remove the book are asking that the First Amendment be violated.

Rather, they are exercising their right to use their influence as buyers to convince a company with which they do business to make a decision not to carry a product they consider harmful and offensive in the extreme.  I don’t see this as different from writing letters to Walmart or choosing not to shop at Walmart because of its business practices. Or writing a letter to the Gap or Old Navy voicing concerns about clothing manufacturing conditions, or to KFC on environmental degradation and animal abuse.

Is it hypocritical to ask Amazon to remove one pedophile book and not all the others? Maybe, but I doubt it, for a few reasons. First, some people have written letters that make it pretty clear they object to any book with similar content. Second, it isn’t a customer’s duty to go through Amazon’s catalog looking for offensive books.  Are the folks who are worried that Amazon may not carry the Pedo Guide also worried about what Walmart and Target carry or refuse to carry? No, they addressed instance of “book banning” that showed up in front of them, just like the Amazon customers addressed the book that showed up in front of them. Third, it may be that other books about pedophilia are perfectly alright, perhaps because they don’t cross the line into “how to”, or for some other principled reason. I would think this last point — dealing with one book at a time– would be one the free speech folks would be happy about.

[Another wrinkle is that Amazon is a global retailer. Restrictions on speech are tighter in different parts of the world. How should this be handled?]

The term “book banner” has gotten thrown around a little too loosely. I think everyone can agree that if I refuse to allow women-degrading porn into my house, I am not thereby a “book banner”.  If a local reading group decides that they will not read thrillers because they object to violence, they are not “book banners”.  If a used book shop chooses not to sell romance novels because it thinks they are trash, it is not a “book banner”. Rather, these are moral actors making reasoned choices within their legitimate sphere of control and influence.

Having said that, unlike an individual, a book group, or a used book shop, whose choices affect a few individuals, and don’t prevent others from obtaining or reading “banned” books, Amazon has a widespread and significant influence on book availability. So Amazon has to weigh its choices about what to carry more carefully than a local used book store, both because its size will make a book like the Pedophile’s Guide much more widely available, and because if it chooses not to carry it, it will be making the book that much harder to obtain. To the extent that Amazon’s decisions affect the availability of books, I do understand why people are using the term “book banner”. Amazon may be a private entity, but it should have — and seems to have –  a commitment to supporting free speech.

But it also has other commitments, which have a strong pull. And I think what is so infuriating to those who want Amazon to remove the book is the idea that they are somehow anti free speech ninnies for even suggesting these other values get a place in the debate. Folks who want the book gone have noticed that the opposing side seems very uncomfortable talking about any moral values other than free speech. And I don’t blame them for noticing this, when so many of the blogs and tweets I read on the subject defend the free speech claim with the idea that “morals are subjective anyway, and since we can’t be sure we are right, we’d better not ban.” Those values might include not making it easier for pedophiles to get away with molesting children, and also refusing to help promote books which express values so inconsistent with the majority of its customer base, and so wrong.

On the first argument, I am not convinced that carrying the book will encourage a culture of pedophilia. People who molest children don’t need a handbook. But I do think there is merit to the idea that Amazon should, in a sense, stand up for children — some of the most vulnerable members of our community — by refusing to be the vehicle through which this kind of book is promoted, just on principle, even if not one fewer child is victimized as a result.

[I doubt Amazon has an ethics committee that chooses which values have the stronger pull, by the way. Its decision probably had a lot to do with avoiding a costly PR problem as the holiday shopping season commences.]

How about the “slippery slope” argument? This is the fear that if Amazon removes the Pedo Guide from its virtual shelves, who knows what will be next. Look in any logic textbook, and you will find “slippery slopes” in the chapter on fallacies — errors in reasoning. Slippery slope arguments depend on a psychological claim: that moral actors will not be able to stop moving in a certain direction once they start. First of all, that’s very hard to prove — it’s a forward looking empirical argument. Second, the history of “book banning” suggests that banning one book does not necessarily lead to the banning of more books and still more books, even when governments and government agencies themselves do it.

The slippery slope issue does remind us to be aware of mistakes that could be made on this kind of issue. Amazon may get it wrong. But that’s why it is so important not to attempt to stifle the conversation with the supposed trump card of free speech. Saying, “well, Amazon has a right to sell it”, and throwing up your hands, is inadequate. The point many free speech advocates are missing is that free speech is only one of several values a good corporate citizen should promote, and only one of many values a good consumer should be worried about. It would be a very impoverished moral landscape if our only concern was deciding what, strictly, speaking, someone has a right to do.

I felt the arguments were almost equally strong (and, it must be said, equally weak) on both sides, and that neither side was really producing the kind of context-dependent detail and information I would personally want to have in hand to be able to decide finally one way or another.  What I most lamented was how the cultural image of “the pedophile” seemed to spur people to action when many of us have become practically inured to the daily first person sightings we have of neglected, abused, needy, and hungry children in our own communities.

Personal

We had a power outage this morning on campus, and the overcast skies offered little classroom light, but, being the hard ass professor that I am, I taught my classes anyway. Gives new meaning to Descartes’s phrase “lumen naturalis”.

HAPPY WEEK!

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